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#AutismPower – These budding masterchefs whip up some mouth-watering delights

Who among us doesn't like chocolate? Sean Paul takes his love one step further by cooking some very creative dishes with it while working alongside Chef Rishim Sachdeva at the well-known Olive Bar and Kitchen in Mumbai.

The 19-year-old got the opportunity to learn and fine tune his culinary skills at Culinaris Cookery Course, a six-month certified diploma in food and beverage production for people with developmental disabilities, a first for Mumbai city.

The course was launched two years ago with nine students at the premises of St Andrews College by the NGO Veruschka Foundation. Since then it's grown phenomenally with 22 students graduating from the recent batch. The course reaches out to youth with various disability types like autism, cerebral palsy, Down syndrome to name a few.

The course has now outgrown the facilities at the St Andrew's College and we are going to start a culinary Institute in Goregaon and are working on raising funds for the required infrastructure. If all goes according to plan we plan to start the course in the middle of June. - Tatyana Dias, Co-founder, NGO Veruschka Foundation

Wearing disposable caps and aprons, the youth go about their tasks intently, accompanied by their parents. Watching over them closely is Chef Curie Fernandes, who calls them 'her pals'. "They have learned to make different types of breads, kormas, starters, desserts and rolls. We have to guide them well and explain properly. They don't like being corrected at times and they react better when their parents do it", says Fernandes.

Offered free of cost, the idea of starting such a skilling programme was born out of a personal experience. Dias' late sister Veruschka had autism and as her sister grew older, the family struggled to find a centre that could meet Veruschka's needs. A culinary course, felt Tatyana, would enable people with developmental disabilities to be gainfully employed and contributing members of society.

"Food is something really positive that brings people together. Indians love food in any case so we decided we wanted to do something cookery-related. Besides its a skill that opens avenues for gainful employment. And even if they don't end up with a job, at least they will be able to cook for themselves, says Dias.

Opening new avenues

Many of the graduates here have gone onto well placed positions with leading chefs and restaurants. Dias makes a special mention of celebrity chef Sanjeev Kapoor in whose kitchen three Culinaris Cookery Course' graduates, Ghulam, Humaira and Ashwin have found employment. "Chef Kapoor has supported us wholeheartedly and employers are beginning to open doors for us, albeit slowly, adds Dias.

The experience has helped open up the youth in a big way.

"Jhanvi has always loved cooking and coming here has changed her in meaningful ways, says her mother Tripti Laxminarayanan. Jhanvi is among the 22 students to have completed the course recently. "She has learned to cook in a new place among new people, take instructions from others, all of which can be challenging for people on the autism spectrum. She was part of the course WhatsApp group where instructions for the next day would be given and she would have to follow those and pack for the next class accordingly. She is high functioning but all these are skills she has learned after joining the course.

Dias' plans to open an advanced course has many people signing up already.

'I plan to enrol my son for the advanced course, says Sudhish Ramteke, whose son Rajat is Jhanvi's batchmate. "Rajat is 18 years old and after coming here he has picked up more skills. I am hoping this will generate meaningful employment options and open doors to options that did not exist earlier.

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